Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show report on this story by Rebecca Arrington:
September 6, 2011 — University of Virginia researchers have completed validation of a new assessment tool for characterizing children's behavior. It is the first rigorously tested instrument to assess preschool children's patterns of interactions with teachers, other children and learning activities, based on systematic observations in the classroom.
"For preschoolers, these behaviors are excellent predictors of academic and social performance in kindergarten and early elementary grades, as well as later functioning in school," said Jason Downer, senior research scientist in the Curry School of Education's Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning.
Downer and other CASTL researchers developed the instrument, called the Individualized Classroom Assessment Scoring System, or inCLASS.
"For children between the ages of 3 and 5, their social interactions, approaches to learning and regulation of emotion and behavior are considered key school-readiness behaviors, and they are all competencies that can be observed in early education classrooms," Downer said.
In national surveys, Downer said, kindergarten teachers agree that communicating well with teachers and other children, getting along with peers, following directions and cooperating, and persisting in the face of challenging tasks are among key behaviors of children who successfully transition to the school system.
The developers of the inCLASS instrument adopted a protocol similar to the one used in the center's CLASS, or Classroom Assessment Scoring System, which guides observations of teacher behavior and identifies effective teaching practices. The inCLASS requires a trained person, other than the teacher, to watch a child multiple times and assign codes based on observed behaviors and interactions. Observers code children's interactions with their teachers, including their level of emotional engagement, the nature of children's conversations and the presence or absence of tension or negativity. They rate interactions with peers, or the degree to which children experience positive emotions and behaviors, are able to initiate and maintain conversation, use positive strategies to lead interactions and experience tension or negativity in interactions.
"The third area considered by observers using the inCLASS is task orientation," U.Va. researcher Leslie Booren said. "That is, how well the child is engaged with and focused on learning tasks, demonstrating self-reliance and exercising behavior control."
The ability to accurately characterize a child's interactions has several advantages, Downer said. When educators have a thorough, objective report of the child's capabilities in a classroom setting, they are better able to target instruction and support to meet a child's needs.
To assist teachers in providing more individualized instruction for children based on the inCLASS observations, the research team has developed an online professional development course.
"The course uses videos of preschool classrooms to help teachers understand how to characterize the full range of children's behaviors they might observe on a daily basis and how to promote and reinforce positive behaviors," Booren said.
When used as a research tool with large samples of children, inCLASS gives scientists the opportunity to describe preschoolers' individual experiences in a classroom setting and examine how their engagement with teachers, peers and tasks may contribute to early learning.
For example, Booren said one recent study that will be published in the journal Early Education and Development examined the relationships between the three focus areas of the inCLASS tool and changes in children's ability to regulate their behavior. The study found evidence that children coded as high in task orientation had greater growth in their emotion regulation across the preschool year. Another study to be published in the same journal describes how children's behavior varies across classroom activity settings, such as large group, free-choice play, transitions and recess.
Over the last six years, the inCLASS instrument has been used in nearly 350 early childhood classrooms, assessing more than 1,000 young children, many of whom were considered at risk. The studies have been conducted in cities across the country, including Los Angeles, Miami, New York City, Charlotte, N.C., and Charlottesville.
"We have been able to link children's observed engagement with teachers, peers and tasks in a preschool classroom with later outcomes, such as language and literacy skills and their ability to regulate behaviors," Downer said. "This lends credence to the inCLASS as a meaningful tool for researchers and teachers and underscores the importance of children's individual experiences in preschool for later academic and social success."